Lisa’s List: 20 Intarsia Throwbacks
For the past two months, I’ve been knitting a moose sweater. That’s exactly what it sounds like—a sweater featuring a moose. The pattern is a vintage 1950’s design from the company Mary Maxim, known for their intarsia sweaters, and I’m recreating it for an issue of Piecework magazine. Here’s a sneak peek!
I’ve always had an affection for the kitschy style of intarsia knits with their pictorial motifs. I designed THIS for knitscene back in the day, after all:
But what is intarsia, anyway? Intarsia is the technique by which you work sections of different colors within your knitting, dropping one color and picking up the next across the row. You can make pictures, like my moose, or change yarns to create any kind of inlay.
The 1990’s and early 2000’s saw a lot of intarsia colorwork in handknitting. Two brands that published incredible intarsia designs—and still do—are Classic Elite and Rowan. Interweave also dabbled in the technique. I reached out to my friends at the two yarn companies and asked for their fave intarsia patterns from the past, and boy did they deliver! Here I will run through some of the wildest and most inspiring intarsia sweaters of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.
Note: The Interweave and Classic Elite patterns are mostly available online (some Interweave ones require buying the digital issue of the original magazine). The Rowan ones are not as easily available, as they’re from out-of-print Rowan magazines, but you might be able to find those available second-hand (or in your own stash, you crazy pattern hoarders).
Get your scrunchies and your stone-washed jeans ready, ladies. Here we go.
20 GLORIOUS INTARSIA SWEATERS
[WAIT Til You See Who’s Modeling 19 and 20!]
1. POLKA DOT MOHAIR SWEATER
We start with the oldest pattern, Classic Elite’s Polka Dot sweater from 1986, worked in La Gran Mohair. This design is perhaps the simplest example of intarsia in the list, with its round spots of color suspended in glorious blue mohair. No doubt inspired by her glorious blue eye shadow. FYI, brushed mohair is GREAT for intarsia, as its bloomy halo fills in the gaps that the technique creates. La Gran is Classic Elite’s flagship yarn and it comes in 19 colors. Get the pattern here.
2. CLUNY JACKET
This majestic number was published in Interweave Knits Winter 1997. I love the yoke pattern; worked in a less pastel palette, I think it would make a stunning Southwestern jacket. It’s the silhouette that dates this design—but try cropping the body and putting a deep ribbed band at the hem, and I think it could very cool. And maybe don’t curl your bangs.
3. LONG LEAF COAT by KAFFE FASSETT
Rowan has produced some of the most incredible intarsia designs EVER. Seriously. I have been following the brand since the early 90’s, and I’m always awed by their collections. David MacLeod, Brand Manager for Rowan Yarns, had this to say about intarsia: “Colour work in knitting is one of the true cornerstones that Rowan was founded on. Many of our designers through the years have been experts in using intarsia and Fair Isle techniques in their work—Kaffe Fassett, Kim Hargreaves, and Marie Wallin, to name just a few. Rowan’s yarn palette is ideal for mixing colours, and often the shades are selected so they can be used together in harmony or in tonal contrast. As Rowan moves forward into the future, colour work will always be a part of our brand.” This design, by the aforementioned color god Kaffe Fassett, really illustrates what David means. 40 COLORS! Wowsers. Rowan recommends multi-plied Felted Tweed for a modern make.
She better run faster, or I am gunna tackle her for this cardigan. Here I come!
4. CARPET BAG PULLOVER BY NORAH GAUGHAN
Speaking of incredible knitwear designers—Norah Gaughan! The beloved American designer worked up this woven-inspired beauty for Classic Elite in their yarn Tapestry back in 1990. I would TOTES wear this today with jeggings and beat-up leather boots. I WOULD skip the red suede gloves. Get the pattern here.
5. TUSCANY by KIM HARGREAVES
Another Rowan rockstar, folks—Kim Hargreaves. Her cardi here is a mixture of flowers and geometrics; it begs for Rowan Cotton Glace’s against-the-skin softness. This photo is my favorite from the list. She’s so incredibly 90’s in her jorts, her messy blonde updo, and the fact that she’s not wearing anything under her handknit cardigan. She’s just a guitar and a convertible away from my heart, y’all.
6. SASHIKO JACKET
For the overworked interior decorator who has just filmed 5 back-to-back episodes of Trading Spaces, we have the Sashiko Jacket. Just match it with your bun chopsticks and your wide leg swishy pants and do some Tai Chi on a rock, and the world will return to its overly thematic order. Noriko Sekiguchi designed this jacket for Interweave Knits Winter 1999, and it’s actually pretty cool as it mashes up kimono silhouettes and (the look of) Japanese embroidery.
7. FOOLISH VIRGINS by KAFFE FASSETT
I don’t know why the virgins are foolish, but who cares. They’re on FIRE. This design is one of Kaffe’s personal favorites and it is a NUMBA ONE STUNNA. Try Rowan Cotton Glace.
8. BEFORE THE FALL PULLOVER
Like the Foolish Virgins, this design raises some questions. The hem reads “before the fall” and there are animals and a naked man depicted in the colorwork. Is this a Garden of Eden sweater? And more importantly, how does “before the fall” space out on the other sizes?
I don’t know what this sweater is trying to tell me, but I like a little mystery in my knitwear. This design, by Julie Hoff, was worked in Classic Elite Inca Alpaca, which is still around and still wonderful. Get the pattern here.
9. KANDINSKY KIMONO
This sweater is “A Different World” to “The Cosby Show”’s Cosby sweater, know what I mean? It’s wilder and looser and finding its own way in the world as a young adult. Kandinsky was an important abstract artist and Leigh Radford was inspired by his work for this project, published in Interweave Knits, Spring 2002.
10. MILIAS BY SHARON PEAKE
You ever see the movie A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger? Watch it this weekend while you knit this peplum jacket in Rowan Super Fine 4ply merino. DO IT FOR LOVE.
11. SONIA DELAUNAY
Another intarsia wonder in Classic Elite La Gran, this one by Sally Lee pretty much hits DELETE on our notions of knitting as traditional. In 1992, while you were obsessing over the first season of The Real World, you could have been knitting it. Or knit it now, the pattern’s here.
12. TURKISH LEAVES BY JAMIE & JESSICA SEATON
A Rowan design from the late 80’s, this one is still super-cool. Cool enough for helping out with the re-enactors at Plymouth Rock, apparently. The designers, J+J Seaton, went on to establish a successful clothing and home dec business in the U.K. called Toast. The Rowan folks recommend Felted Tweed for a modern version.
13. RED DIAMONDS BY KAFFE FASSETT
When you’re done gathering that kindling, go on and sweep the hay out in the barn, lass. And switch your Turkish Leaves sweater to the Red Diamonds. Don’t ask questions, sweep the hay!
Rowan has always produced fantastic photography that seems to tell a story. And I think this sweater WOULD be handy on the farm out in Iowa when the weather turns, especially in Rowan Felted Tweed with some positive ease.
WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT FLOWER POWER?
14. ROSA RUGOSA BLOUSE by MICHELE ROSE
Nothing says “check out my rosehips” like a plunging neckline rimmed with a Peter Pan collar. But it was 1990 and I was still taking life advice from Teddy Ruxpin, so what do I know? The flower motif is lovely and the piece could be worked in Classic Elite Provence for a modern take, perhaps with shawl-collar tweaks to make a more modern drape-front finish. Pattern!
15. CORAL ROSES by MICHELE ROSE ORNE
You guys, I think this rose design is by the same designer as Rosa Rugosa, but I did not have time to check in with Michele ROSE. She is pretty awesome, though, and her book Inspired to Knit has a couple glorious intarsia designs, including this one.
A Rowan beauty by Sarah Dallas, known for her delicate colorwork. Again, try Cotton Glace.
17. DOGWOOD DONNA
Southern girls who like Rockabilly, this one’s for you! Katie Himmelberg designed the Dogwood Donna for knitscene around the same time I made the Tux Tee, but I’ll venture to say that her design is much more successful.
18. WEEKEND GETAWAY SATCHEL
So this pattern was published in Interweave Knits Fall 2005, which was my first year on the job with Interweave. I can’t tell you how many customer phone calls I got about THE BOOTS. The freakin boots. Everyone wanted those boots. (I don’t remember where they’re from, don’t ask.) Oh, and the pattern was pretty popular, too. Intarsia looks fantastic once it’s felted, and this design takes full advantage of that fact.
AND I SAVED THE BEST FOR LAST!
19. KELIM BY KAFFE FASSETT
I LOVE THIS SWEATER YES YES YES.
And oh btw, does the model look familiar? It’s none other than supermodel Kate Moss, in her early modeling days. Hi Kate!
Kaffe used several different Rowan yarns to get this wonderful color montage; you could try Rowan Felted Tweed to recreate it today.
20. FLORAL MOHAIR PULLOVER
Another Sally Lee creation for Classic Elite, and another celebrity model! This is Uma Thurman in 1987; Classic Elite often used models from agencies in New York City, and there’s always a chance one will end up famous! I would wear this over-the-top floral and cable and mohair number ALL DAY LONG, FOLKS. I would also wear a big blue bow on my head. This whole look is so fabulous. Knit it now!
That’s the fun thing about intarsia—you can knit creative, colorful, one-of-a-kind looks that suit your personal style. Go subtle and neoclassical, or go Kandinsky, or go moose and flowers and rainbows. Intarsia is easy knitting; it’s just a little fussy in the yarn management and finishing. Start with few colors and large solid areas of color, then advance your skills with more complex shapes.
If you can’t get enough, Kaffe Fassett has a new colorwork collection available from Rowan. And Classic Elite tells great stories, including the Uma Thurman one that caught my attention recently, on their blog.
Thank you to Classic Elite and Rowan for contributing to this post!
Some Modern Intarsia